A very human disaster

25 11 2009

Virtually every big disaster comes down to human error – Chernobyl, Bhopal, plane crashes. To be more precise, they come down to  small mechanical failures, compounded and created by human panic, or confusion, or failure to communicate. In an unusual work environment, like a nuclear power station or a plane cockpit, the way people relate to each other can make the difference between life and death. How’s that for psychology at work?

I recently read and enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers”, which has a significant chapter on the human role in air disasters, and in particular the bad safety problems once suffered by Korean Air. It’s shocking and fascinating to read some of his transcripts of terrible, avoidable disasters that came down to people feeling too inhibited, confused, and distressed to be able to speak up at crucial times. Gladwell reports on two South American pilots who simply felt too inhibited by the assertive and vocal air traffic control crew in New York to be able to communicate that their plane was almost totally out of fuel and due to crash. Both pilots and the passengers lost their lives.

Air Korea’s poor safety record was for some time a source of mystery, as their equipment was as up-to-date and in as good condition as anyone’s. If it weren’t for the “black box” reportings of everything that’s said in the cockpit, it might have remained a mystery. Korean culture is highly deferential to authority, and authority in a Korean plane cockpit was vested and embodied in the captain. Before each flight, the co-pilots and crew would be expected to bring his meals and attend to his every need. The net result of all of this was that in any problem or difficulty, no-one would voice an opinion that ran contrary to that of the captain, despite the desperate need. It’s painful to read the transcripts of the co-pilots trying desperately to communicate that the plane is in trouble to their captain. “Captain, the weather radar has helped us a lot.”

I always think of those co-pilots when I hear it said that people are the same everywhere, or that culture and environment do not affect how people respond. The pilots were unable to overcome the cultural inhibitions binding them, even though they knew well the outcome could be their deaths. Korean Air, by the way, now has an excellent safety record, but getting it involved intensively training their air crews to put deference aside and communicate honestly and robustly in the air. The patterns of culture and communication we live in affect the results of all our lives profoundly on a daily basis – the question is, is it in the way we’d like?

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